Kari Lehtonen key to playoff hopes

In one month, the Dallas Stars have gone from playoff pretenders to Pacific Division contenders. It's been an incredible metamorphosis.

A club that appeared ready to be sellers at the trade deadline in an effort to continue to build for the future suddenly showed glimpses that the future isn't as far away as most folks thought. They've made third-period comebacks, won close games, played solid team defense and had timely scoring.

But if this Stars squad is to return to the postseason for the first time since making a memorable run to the Western Conference finals in 2008, it's up to goaltender Kari Lehtonen.

"You look at teams that have made the playoffs and won Cups and you can point to the guy in the net," Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk said.

Perhaps no position in all of sports can impact a game more than a goalie can in hockey. A starting pitcher can shut down the opponent, but he's available only every fifth game in the regular season. The best basketball player on the planet still can't win a championship by himself. It takes some help (even Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen).

"Maybe the closest thing is an elite quarterback, like Indianapolis without Peyton Manning," Stars coach Glen Gulutzan said. "If you don't have that guy playing at a top level, you struggle. But the goalie can carry you through 30 or 40 games or an entire playoff.

"There's so much parity in the league now that if you have an elite goalie playing at that level, it can be the difference between getting in the playoffs or not getting in, or doing something once you get in. It's understated how important that is."

Lehtonen has played at that kind of elite level this season, especially since he returned from a groin injury in late December after missing 12 games. He's sporting a 2.21 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage, fifth in the NHL in both categories among goalies with at least 40 games played.

It isn't just his pure numbers, either. The biggest knock on Marty Turco in his last few years was that he wasn't able to consistently make the big saves. He'd play well for stretches, but not well enough. Lehtonen is making those big saves.

"We were up 1-0 in Minnesota on the last road trip and they had a point-blank shot late in the period and he squeezed it," Gulutzan said. "We picked up the two points. That's when you've got to have your goalie help you."

Down the stretch, when the defenses tighten and goals are at even more of a premium, Lehtonen must continue to play at a high level. He must be the guy that is able to clean up any mess made by his defense. He has to hold the leads -- no matter how slim -- that his team gives him.

"We're playing well as a team and I just want to help us make the playoffs," Lehtonen said. "I wanted to play like this and I wish it hadn't taken so long. But my goal is to be a dependable goalie in this league. I hope this is just the start. I want to get better and I know I can."

The Lehtonen trade in early February 2010 (sending defenseman prospect Ivan Vishnevskiy and a fourth-round draft pick in 2010 to Atlanta for Lehtonen, who was recovering from back injuries) could be Nieuwendyk's equivalent of Texas Rangers GM Jon Daniels' trade of Mark Teixeira to Atlanta or the Dallas Cowboys trade of Herschel Walker.

While those other two deals netted a group of players that went on to help those teams win championships (the Rangers' back-to-back AL titles and the Cowboys' Super Bowl run in the 1990s), Lehtonen is the most important piece on a team with a young core that should be contenders for years to come.

Still, Lehtonen has just has two playoff games on his résumé.

That's why the next three weeks are so important for the bigger picture. Lehtonen will be under immense pressure as he tries to help guide his team to the postseason. And if he gets there, he won't have a wealth of experience to draw on. There's no way to simulate what the Stanley Cup playoffs are all about. So getting there and experiencing it would be huge for Lehtonen and the Stars.

"He's grown all year and he's worked really hard," Nieuwendyk said. "It started the day he came to us. He was probably not in the best shape when we got him, recovering from his surgeries, and we got him at a real good time because it gave him a second chance at his career. He's matured along the way and making the most of his opportunity."

Gulutzan says he isn't worried about Lehtonen's lack of playoff experience, noting that the Stars have been in playoff mode for the last month anyway.

"These last 11 games are the playoffs for us, too," Gulutzan said. "He takes care of himself and does the little things on and off the ice to be prepared. He's a competitor, even in practice. He doesn't want anyone scoring on him. He's got a lot of confidence and we have confidence in him."

He'll need it as the Stars face plenty of playoff-contending teams in this final stretch of games. Dallas is currently third in the Western Conference thanks to its lead in the Pacific Division. But that's only a two-point lead over Phoenix and three over San Jose, which sits in ninth (and out of the playoffs) in the conference. So any slipup could be costly.

Friday, the Stars host the Chicago Blackhawks, the team they would face in the opening round if the playoffs began today. It's the first of a critical four-game homestand against three teams currently in the playoffs and another -- Calgary -- just one point back of eighth. Of the final 11 games, Dallas plays only one team -- Edmonton -- that doesn't have a chance to make the playoffs.

"It's pressure, but we've been under pressure already," Lehtonen said. "This is why you play. The intensity goes up and you see how you handle it. I'm looking forward to it."

Just the thing you want to hear from the most important player on the ice.